Shock and sadness: Families unite to oppose St. Joseph Central High School's closing

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Photo Gallery | Reactions at St. Joseph Central High School

PITTSFIELD — Melissa Filippi, a St. Joseph Central High School parent and employee, won't go quietly. "As long as there's breath in me, I will fight for this school."

Robert Paterson, a 16-year-old St. Joe's junior, is determined to keep his two dozen classmates together. "We'll never give up on each other."

And Michael Nichols, a member of the Class of 1969 who volunteers at St. Joe's, plans to keep tending daffodil bulbs he just buried in beds along the school's Maplewood Avenue entrance. "I'll come here until somebody buys the building and kicks me out."

After days of tears following the Oct. 13 announcement that the Springfield diocese will close the 119-year-old school, defiance appears to be taking their place.

Parents and students are moving to fight the decision and will take their cause to the public with a 4 p.m. rally Thursday in Park Square in downtown Pittsfield.

A new group, St. Joe Strong, is pressing the diocese to consider alternatives to closing. Members acknowledge that Berkshire County's only Catholic high school has run a big deficit — $4.5 million over five years — but believe diocesan leaders failed to exhaust options to keep the school going. And they fault them for not involving the school community in deliberations about the future of the school.

"We want to be part of this decision," said parent Lara Sohl of Pittsfield, interviewed outside St. Joe's Wednesday as classes let out.

In their first formal meeting Tuesday, St. Joe Strong members brainstormed approaches to saving the school. One is to cut costs, even by moving to new space. Another is to seek support from county parishes and strengthen ties to a broader Catholic community. "There are even more wonderful ideas that can come from our community," Sohl said.

But initial overtures Wednesday morning to the office of Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski were not encouraging. Laura Thurston, the mother of two St. Joe's students and a 1987 graduate, said that when she called to request a meeting with the bishop, she was told Rozanski would not be available for more than a month — if at all.

According to her husband, Jim, Thurston heard later Wednesday in an email that the diocese would help students find new schools, but no more than that.

Mark E. Dupont, spokesman for the Springfield diocese, said the bishop has "the utmost confidence" that the school's leaders and board did all they could to save St. Joe's. "Despite these tremendous efforts (they) could not could not overcome the challenges faced."

St. Joe Strong is requesting that the diocese convene a review committee, as it did after a tornado damaged Cathedral High School in Springfield, to find ways to persevere.

Kristina Kisiel, a St. Joe's parent who lives in Peru, said the group has consulted an attorney and expects to file a formal appeal after it receives official written notice of the closing. "This was an edict that came down," she said of the closing. "We're hoping we can prevail on the diocese to give us a second look. We hope to come up with a Plan B that they have not come up with."

"It may be a lost cause, but we want to be heard," said Laura Thurston. "We did not see it coming. There's got to be a solution."

Dupont said anger from parents is understandable, but added, "They need to first understand the facts."

He cited high building costs and the fact that three parochial feeder schools enroll 38 eighth-graders, a number he said was insufficient for a "robust secondary program."

"There simply are far fewer school-age children in western Massachusetts and even fewer who can afford tuition. These are the sad realities we faced," Dupont said.

Kisiel, the St. Joe Strong member, said the diocese should do more to save parochial education. "Why have they completely given up on Catholic education here?" she asked. "Is there something that is sustainable and viable in the Berkshires?"

"Perhaps if we'd had a dialogue, we would know that this was a lost cause," Kisiel said.

Parents say they also feel stung by suggestions that they should have anticipated the closing.

In a statement earlier Wednesday, Dupont said the school's financial problems have been discussed with the school's leaders and board for many years. "It's hard to imagine parents seeing the obvious enrollment trend would not have understood the seriousness of the school's situation."

"That's blatantly untrue," said Sohl, the parent from Pittsfield. "We heard about the closing the night it was announced. It was a complete blindside. That's what's causing so much of the upset. In multiple meetings we've been told that they are in full support of us. For them to say we should have read the tea leaves is shameful."

Parents and students on Wednesday also questioned whether the diocese is failing to live up to what they believed were assurances, after the closing of St. Mark's in 2014, that St. Joe's was on a more solid financial footing. Several cited communications from the bishop, one of which, they say, linked the closing of that pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 school with a better outlook for their own school.

"No such assurance was ever given," Dupont said. He said families may be confused by the fact that the school was recently re-accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Principal Amy R. Gelinas walked visitors through St. Joe's Wednesday morning, stopping at classrooms engaged in studies of math, robotics and social justice. She had called students together Friday to explain why the school would close and to outline steps she and others will take to help them transition to new schools. "Number One is what is in the best interests of the kids."

"There's still shock. It's been described as a death. And it is a death as an institution," Gelinas said.

"All of our staff just lost their jobs too." The school employs 31 people in full- and part-time posts. Representatives of the diocese are coming Friday to talk about severance packages.

Gelinas said she had reviewed enrollment numbers and said 2005 was the first year of increase for domestic students. "We are starting to turn, but not turn enough. It was too little, too late."

And the size of the deficit has been growing, she said. "That's unfortunately the trend."

The diocese linked the closing to the loss of 20 international students the school expected to enroll, a number that would have brought in more than $300,000 in tuition and perhaps staved off a closing.

Gelinas said she believes Bishop Rozanski supports education and did not make the decision lightly.

"I agree with the idea that there should be a Catholic high school in Berkshire County and it's a true shame that it will not. But when I see those numbers, I understand completely why the bishop did what he did. Wanting it and affording it are two different things," Gelinas said.

But she supports efforts by school families to challenge the decision. "They have a right to be heard. It's just a sad, sad thing."

Students have been preparing signs for Thursday's rally. Four of them agreed to meet outside school Wednesday to talk about what the school means to them.

Samantha El Saddik, 17, a senior, said she learned of the closing in a group text message Thursday night. "It was so abrupt," she said.

She said she'll join the rally because she wants the community to know that St. Joe's fate affects all of Pittsfield. "We want them to realize that St. Joe's is a benefit to this community. The people educated at St. Joe's are needed in Pittsfield because they're leaders. They're well-rounded. They have team-work skills and see potential in others." She credits the school with instilling in her social and religious values. She has volunteered in Haiti and plans to be an educator herself. "It has influenced my life and career path," El Saddik said of the school. "It's made me realize how much I want to help others and help kids."

Robert Paterson, the St. Joe's junior, got the news while still at school, at a meeting that included parents. "Everyone was crying and yelling, and asking, 'What can we do to keep our school open?'"

Cameron Winters, a 16-year-old junior, spoke fondly of being in school with five classmates he's known since second grade. He said that after making the shift to parochial school from a public school, he prospered. "I started growing and getting better grades since it was one-on-one. I really grew as a person. "It's definitely a family here. Everybody here I care for. If we're separated, we're not going to be able to look after each other."

When asked what the loss of St. Joe's would mean to him, Conor Thurston, an 18-year-old senior, thought of his little sister, Delaney, who is 14 and in ninth grade. "I'm scared for her. Most likely she's not going to get a Catholic education, which I appreciate and want her to have as well."

The education provided by St. Joe's teachers comes with important moral lessons, he said, as well as secular knowledge. "They are also guiding in life."

Michael Nichols, the 1969 grad, can point to relatives in photos in the school's alumni room who attended St. Joe's in the 1920s. Since retired from banking three years ago, he's come to volunteer every day at the school and says he feels more fulfilled than ever. "The city is going to be a poorer place without St. Joseph's," he said.

Like Conor Thurston, the student, Nichols praised the values instilled at St. Joe's. "Money isn't important. Prestige isn't important. Not just doing what's right for you, but doing what's right for others." Nichols has been praying for St. Joe's and believes anything is possible with prayer. "I know it is. Oh, absolutely."

News the school will close came with a sickening sense of deja vu for Melissa Filippi and other parents. She attended an announcement about the shuttering of St. Mark's not long ago while her son, Chanze, 14, was a student.

"It was the exact same meeting with the exact same people. We had no idea this was happening," said Filippi, who works as a school nurse.

Filippi, her eyes wet, said she and her family feel devastated. "For them to come in and reopen our wounds ."

Since the news came last week, she's believes she treated headaches and upset stomachs related to stress over the closing. "The kids are all grieving and all scared. I want my school open and I want my faith in the Catholic diocese and in the bishop to be restored."

She added, "Let us fundraise. Let us be partners together. Keep us informed. If we had known the danger (of closing) we would have rallied. These kids are amazing. These kids are resourceful."

Around lunchtime Wednesday, Laura Thurston was standing in the 1942 school's main first-floor corridor, a squadron of lockers around her, wondering why things have come to this point. "I can't believe there's no one out there willing to help us," she said. "I feel we've all been abandoned, all the way around. This has been consuming everybody. We're not going away this time."

Lois Bessette, a part-time nurse at the school was listening, and nodding. "We're making our own miracle."


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